The announcement this week by Ed FitzGerald that he has formed an exploratory committee to run for governor next year brings into sharper focus the Cuyahoga County executive’s potential bid to unseat John Kasich.
Other Democrats are still being mentioned, including U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, of Niles, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, of Copley Township, and Richard Cordray, the former Ohio treasurer and attorney general who now directs the federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.
But with 2014 fast approaching, none of FitzGerald’s potential primary opponents has formed an exploratory committee, an important step in building support.
Meanwhile, the most recent Quinnipiac University poll in Ohio, released late last month, showed Republican Kasich’s job-approval rating at 53 percent, the first time in two years he has topped 50 percent.
Kasich held 6-point to 10-point leads over his potential Democratic rivals, but failed to get over 50 percent in any of the matchups. Another sign of voters’ lingering uncertainties is that Kasich’s re-election number was less than 50 percent. When asked whether he deserved re-election, 46 percent of registered voters in Ohio said yes.
FitzGerald said he will spend the next few weeks traveling around Ohio, listening to voters’ concerns. In his announcement, he began to sketch some of the broad themes he could use in a contest against Kasich, now deeply involved in policy and budget disputes with fellow Republicans at the Statehouse.
Besides a reminder about public service (as an FBI agent, assistant county prosecutor, mayor of Lakewood and Cuyahoga County’s first executive), FitzGerald swung broadly at the state’s leaders for “taking care of insiders” and “taking … cues from the wealthy and well-connected instead of Ohio’s middle class.”
But two specific attacks did emerge, both of which could damage the governor over the long haul. First, FitzGerald noted the Kasich administration’s record of “gutting funding to local communities.”
Local government has indeed taken a hit from the Kasich administration, effectively shoving the tax burden to the local level.
In the current budget, the Local Government Fund, a longstanding tax-sharing mechanism, was cut by 50 percent. In the coming biennium, local governments would see under Kasich’s plan a $28 million increase, but would still receive $318 million less in 2015 than before the current budget was enacted. In addition, local governments will lose $200 million in estate-tax revenue this year and continue to see losses in replacement money for tax reductions on utility properties.
Meanwhile, the budget is showing a surplus, and Kasich is promising more income tax cuts, which disproportionately favor high-income taxpayers as property owners, some of modest means, get socked with local levies. As FitzGerald noted, cuts in firefighters, police officers and teachers have been the result.
FitzGerald’s other jab follows the lead set by state Rep. Chris Redfern, head of the Ohio Democratic Party. FitzGerald attacked “a governor who wants new taxes on everyday Ohioans.” That’s a reference to Kasich’s strategy of broadening the state sales tax to include services, now an important part of Ohio’s economy.
The plan has run into serious trouble in the legislature, controlled by tax-averse Republicans who don’t want to get clobbered when they run for re-election next year. It could be scaled down or axed, leaving FitzGerald without an issue.
What’s more, the issue of tax fairness raised by cuts to local governments doesn’t resonate as well with the sales tax issue. Yes, the sales tax is regressive, but Kasich’s plan is to lower the rate from 5.5 percent to 5 percent and apply the tax to a broader slice of the state’s economy.
The real problem is that the money would help offset another cut in state income taxes, the Kasich administration’s Holy Grail.
A more substantive attack could be aimed at the income tax reduction itself, which would not only skew toward the wealthy but do little to stimulate the state’s economy, which needs a boost in spending by average Ohioans to create more jobs.
While dissension in the GOP’s ranks is unlikely to affect Kasich’s renomination next year, it does provide ammunition for the Democratic candidate in the fall campaign. The challenge is to pick the right issues to turn back on Kasich and his Republican allies and present alternatives.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.